IRVING, TEXAS Shigeki Maruyama is known as the "Smilin' Assassin," and he certainly lived up to his nickname Saturday in the Byron Nelson Classic.
Hamming it up for the crowd on a hot and blustery afternoon, the Japanese golfer holed a 7-foot birdie putt on the final hole for a 2-under 68 that gave him a three-stroke lead over Cameron Beckman going into the final round.
It was the first time Maruyama has held the 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour.
"Big pressure tomorrow," he said, wrapping his hands around his throat for emphasis and letting out the hearty laugh that has become his trademark.
Maruyama was at 12-under 198, and his three-stroke lead was the largest at the Nelson Classic since Ernie Els had the same margin in 1995.
A victory today would give Asian golfers their second straight PGA Tour victory. Last week in New Orleans, K.J. Choi became the first South Korean to win on tour.
Still, Maruyama is in a league of his own. Despite the language barrier, he is one of the most popular players among his peers because of his infectious smile.
"I cannot keep serious face, even for a minute," he said.
Maruyama said he wants to be like Tiger Woods, his demeanor suddenly serious as he raised his right hand in a mock wave and tugged on the bill of his cap.
"I tried," he said. "But I smiled that time."
The goal of everyone else is to wipe that smile off his face, and it might not be easy.
Beckman had a 4-under 66, the best score among late starters who faced the brunt of gusts that approached 30 mph.
Maruyama earned his first PGA Tour victory last year at the Greater Milwaukee Open, becoming the first Japanese player to win on the mainland.
This field is much stronger, boasting eight of the top 10 at the start of the week, and the conditions figure to be far more of a test.
"I expect good play, like a big-name player," he said.
Plenty of big names are in the hunt. Fifteen players, including Woods, are within seven strokes of the lead.
Ernie Els shot a bogey-free 64 and was ties for third at 203with Loren Roberts, Lee Janzen, Ben Crane and Jim Carter.
Phil Mickelson finished with a 71 and was at 204 with Nick Price, Duffy Waldorf, Frank Lickliter and Paul Stankowski.
Woods' 69 left him at 205.